Archive: Roads as History

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original posts. This week in my From the Archives series: roads are literally, yes, a roadmap of history.


McCoy Fields Roads

Paved with (Good?) Intentions

I write a lot about roads on this blog. The Yard Ramp Guy must think I'm a bit obsessed (though he’d probably phrase it differently).

The study of roads is the study of history. Countless historical events, from the outcomes of wars to international trade, and from religious expansion to the maintenance of nations: they all rely on roads.

Incan roads—not the most extensive network of ancient roads but one of the most technologically impressive—were earthquake-proof with incredibly durable suspension bridges. Roman roads have been receiving acclaim for millennia now, and many are still in use.

Which brings us to ancient Chinese roads.

Under the Qin Dynasty (circa 220 BC), Chinese road networks were considerably more extensive than their Roman contemporaries. One, the Ancient Road of Mules and Horses, was created in 214 BC by an advancing army of the Qin. The Emperor marched a half-million strong army in a straight line on one of his wars of conquest, crushing the earth in its path. They later covered the road in slate, and it remained in use for 2,000 years afterward without changing routes.

Walking up a golden ramp. Kind of.

Walking up a golden ramp. Kind of.

Road maintenance was key in holding onto territory in China. Later dynasties, like the Han, went to great pains to maintain this and other roads, building hostels and post offices along their lengths. Another Qin road was immensely long, built to service border forts along a huge wall that predated the Great Wall.

My favorite ancient road of all, though, is the Stone Cattle Road. One of the ancestors of the First Qin Emperor wanted to conquer the nearby Shu kingdom to the south, over the Qinling Mountains. He had his sculptors and artisans carve five life-sized stone cows and decorate their tails and hindquarters with gold.

When the king of Shu received news of them, he asked the Qin king to send him a herd. The Qin king claimed that he would need a gallery road (built of wooden planks imbedded in the sides of cliffs) across the mountains to move the cows. The Shu king not only permitted it; he also helped fund the construction.

Yes, we know how this story develops: The first thing the Qin king brought over wasn't a herd of gold-depositing cattle. He brought an army.

Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Business Advantages

This week my friend The Yard Ramp Guy shows how buying his inventory can save you money.

Click HERE for his simple suggestions to make that happen.

Archives: Living Bridges

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original posts. This week in my From the Archives series: if only our own infrastructure were as strong and natural as living bridges.


I've blogged a lot about bridges, I know (Sir Bridges Blog-a-Lot, eh?) but I haven't yet explored living bridges.

Meghalaya, a state in north-eastern India, is one of the wettest places in the world, getting close to 500 inches of rainfall a year. Almost three-quarters of the state is forested. One of the indigenous tribes living there, the War-Khasi, build living foot bridges from the roots of the Ficus elastica — a variety of rubber tree.

thebridgePhoto by Arshiya Urveeja Bose [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

To grow the bridges, the Khasis create root guidance systems out of halved and hollowed betel nut trunks. The roots are channeled to the other side of the river, where they are allowed to bury themselves in the soil on that side.

The bridges take 10 to 15 years to grow strong enough for regular use; once they do, they last incredible amounts of time with no maintenance: since they're still growing, they actually continue to grow stronger and stronger over time. Some of the older bridges are five centuries old. Many of the older, stronger bridges can support 50 or more people at once.

mfthought

Sometimes I think about crossing a bridge.

The most famous of the bridges, the Umshiang Double-Decker Root Bridge, is actually two of those bridges, with one stacked directly over the other. Local dedication to the art has kept the bridges alive and prevented them from being replaced with steel. (Steel, frankly—and with all respect to those dealing with, ahem, yard ramps—doesn't have anything near the lifespan of the root bridges and aren't nearly as sturdy.)

The root bridges aren't the only living bridges around. In the Iya Valley in Japan, there are bridges woven out of living wisteria vines. They're much less common, and only three remain. They're built by growing immense lengths of wisteria on each side of the river before weaving them together—a process that must be repeated once every three years.

These wisteria bridges are much less sturdy than the Khasi root bridges, with wooden planks spaced over seven inches apart, and they apparently shake wildly while you're on them. By all accounts, these things are terrifying to cross, which makes sense: they’re widely thought to have been designed originally for defense. The original bridges didn't even have railings.

Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Industrial Protection

This week my friend The Yard Ramp Guy makes a compelling case for worker safety.

Click HERE to peruse his perspective on proper planning.

Archives: Traffic Flow

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original posts. This week in my From the Archives series: zippers for roads? You betcha.


All traffic isn't created equal.

Zippy Traffic...via Zipper

For example, you've likely noticed that the morning rush hour often has greater traffic coming into the city from the suburbs and that the evening rush hour traffic clogs up the outbound lanes.

So, we tend to have traffic moving much more slowly in one direction than the other.

Accidents and our tendency to rubberneck them also cause the traffic to bunch in one direction. (Yes, we can keep listing these reasons for a while.) Unfortunately, building new lanes for our roadways can be prohibitively expensive, and it often isn't even possible, especially where bridges are concerned.

There is a fascinating solution, though:

Road zippers are heavy vehicles that have the ability to move concrete lane dividers across a lane, widening the road for one direction of traffic, narrowing it for the other. This requires a special type of moveable barrier, with shorter segments linked together by flexible steel connectors.

The road zipper, plus new barriers, are far, far cheaper than an entirely new lane. They actually pick up the segment lines using a little conveyor system, essentially acting on the same principles as a screw or a ramp (though Jeff Mann, The Yard Ramp Guy, might think I'm stretching that definition a bit).

Road zippers can move the lane at up to a top speed of 10 mph, depending on traffic, and is much safer than trying to manage traffic with cones and lights. They're especially useful on bridges. Crews on the Golden Gate Bridge have been employing a road zipper since 2010 to manage rush hour traffic, to great effect.

Any road crew that's worked on a bridge isn't going to have particularly fond memories of dealing with bridge traffic, and the road zipper provides an effective solution. We can also use this method to speed up bridge re-decking projects, moving the barrier to protect the work zone.

Transportation authorities utilize road zippers all around the world, and they're especially popular in the United States and Australia. Many cities use them on a permanent basis, while others lease them temporarily during construction work.

Even if they weren't so useful logistically, I'd still like them: they're just plain cool.

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Quotable

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

— Lewis Carroll

Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Ramps for Material Handling

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy shows us how yard ramps and strawberry Pop-Tarts are connected.

Click HERE to read about my new favorite connection.

Archives: Evolution of the Screw

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so, my From the Archives series. This week: Turn, turn turn: the evolution of the screw.


Screws are a magnificent invention. I've talked about them plenty – think of them simply as ramps wrapped around an axle – so why wouldn't I be interested? They’re simple machines and they literally help batten down the hatches. I figure it’s time to unscrew the lid on their history.

Our old friend Archimedes probably invented the screw. Archimedes' screw is used to pump water uphill, usually for irrigation, through a tube with a metal screw inside: as you turn the screw, the threads scoop up water and push it to the top.

Archimedes' screw

Archimedes' screw

Interestingly enough, we still commonly use this device, and also turn it in the opposite direction. In the Archimedes turbine, water flowing downward turns the screw, which itself is the center of a hydroelectric generator.

Within a few centuries of their invention, screws were appearing all around the Mediterranean in the form of wooden screw presses. We used these to smash olives for olive oil and to smash grapes for wine — both major products of the region. Later on, the screw press would also be a vital component of Gutenberg's printing press.

Me, rummaging for my turnscrew.

Have you noticed a pretty major use that's missing here?

That's right: screws weren't used as fasteners. Instead, there were nails, welding, dowels and pins, etcetera, etcetera. This list of “alternatives” is substantial. In fact, we didn’t use screws as fasteners for nearly two millennia after Archimedes invented them.

What was missing? The screwdriver. (Fun fact: we used to call screwdrivers “turnscrews.”) We didn’t invent the screwdriver until the 1500s. Even then, we rarely tended to use screws as fasteners.

The final piece of the puzzle? The creation of machine tools necessary for manufacturing metal screws. Until that happened, they were just too much trouble to produce in large quantities.

Since we optimized that production angle, we haven't stopped turning them out.

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Archimedes' screw gif by Silberwolf (size changed by: Jahobr), CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: State Ramp Coverage

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy explains how Alaska, aka The Last Frontier, is not that at all, so far as yard ramp coverage is concerned.

Click HERE to boldly go where no Yard Ramp Guy ramp has gone before.

Archives: Space Elevators

My good friend Jeff Mann, the true Yard Ramp Guy, has asked me to revisit some of my original contributions. And so, my From the Archives series. This week: The ups and downs of space elevators.


When it comes to getting into space, rockets are pretty much staircases at best. More like ladders, really.

McCoy Fields: Going Up!

Space Elevator

That's a bizarre thing to say, I know, but hear me out. Rockets are expensive and dangerous, but they're still the best way we have of getting to space. (There are a couple of other ways, like Orion drives, but given that those things basically ride nuclear explosions...) There's a theoretical method, that works much, much better: the space elevator. (Hence the staircase joke. Well, I thought it was funny, at least. So I'm not a professional comedian, so sue me.)

A space elevator is, essentially, a long cable—anchored at the equator, extending out into orbit. It works sort of like when you spin while holding a rope, and the rope is suspended above the ground by centrifugal force. (Or is it centripetal? I can never remember.) It's not quite the same, of course, since it has to have a counterweight at the end, along with several other requirements.

Once the cable is up, cargo and passenger pods would be able to freely move up and down it, at much, much lower costs than rockets.

Did I mention how expensive rockets are? Really, really expensive. As in: $10,000 to $25,000 per kilogram they need to lift. (For those of you who don't have your measurement conversion tables memorized, one kilogram is equal to a bit more than two pounds.)

Carbon Tube

A Carbon Tube

So why aren't we using them now? Well, because we don't have a strong enough cable. People keep bringing up carbon nanotubes as an option, but since we don't have those yet, we just can't build it.

The space elevator would be more than possible on other, smaller objects in the Solar System. We could build a space elevator on the moon with ordinary Kevlar.

Space elevators aren't the only ideas for getting to space without rockets. Other ideas are floating out there, ranging from rocket sleds (which does actually involve rockets, but in a much more affordable manner) to skyhooks, which resemble something that a mad scientist, a six year old, and an engineer would design together if asked to create the nuttiest amusement park ride ever, all while hooked to caffeine IV drips.

The Yard Ramp Guy Blog: Steel Evolution

This week, my friend The Yard Ramp Guy impressively shows us how words matter in influencing hearts and minds.

Click HERE to read those words.